Yet Another Post About Query Letters

Chapters Edited: 11
Scenes Edited: 29
Words Murdered: 1915 (5.2% - I think I added some while rewriting)

Times Hagai has been in a life-threatening situation: 6
People who've yelled at Hagai for doing something stupid: 7 (oddly, never Sam)
People who've fought with Sam: 9
People who wished they hadn't: 6


So, query letters again.

If there's one thing I learned from Nathan's Agent for a Day contest it's that the perfect query letter will not make agents request your manuscript. "What?!" you say. Yes, I say. At best, the perfect query letter can tell the agent about your story. It's your story that will make them want to read your manuscript.

That means your query letter must be a clean, logical summary of your story. It doesn't have to include everything, but it does have to read well, and it has to make sense. It can't get in the way of the story.

I've been thinking about this because I've been teaching our niece (whom we homeschool) how to write a high school-level book report. The method is essentially the same. Here's what I told her:
  1. Focus only on the main storyline: one protagonist, one antagonist, one conflict, one climax.
  2. Be specific.
  3. Everything in the summary must answer the questions: What happens (main storyline only)? Why does that happen? What happens as a result?
Example: Lord of the Rings (because you can't talk too much about LotR).

Focusing on the main storyline means we're talking about Frodo and the Ring and nothing else. In a summary, or a query, that means we don't mention Pippin or Merry, Legolas or Gimli, maybe not even Aragorn or Gollum! Sauron gets a mention because it's his ring. Sam might get mentioned as "Frodo's faithful companion," but that's it.

Being specific means mentioning the details that make your story unique. Frodo doesn't need to destroy the Ring; he needs to throw it into the bowels of Mt. Doom, located in the center of Sauron's wasteland domain. He isn't chased by evil forces; he is hunted by legions of orcs and tracked by Ring Wraiths - creatures so twisted by evil that they have no will of their own, only that of their master Sauron.

Be careful though. Specifics can get wordy. Choose the specifics that make your story unique but at the same time don't clutter the summary with confusing details. In particular, don't name characters that don't need to be named.

Flowing logically means that the query/summary makes sense to someone who has never read the book. This is the hardest part for us authors because we keep forgetting that things that make perfect sense to us wouldn't make any sense to fresh eyes.

Often, in order to answer the 3 questions I mentioned above, we have to include bits that aren't part of the main storyline. I have to say that Frodo inherits the ring - from who? why? He sets off to destroy it - why? who tells him to do that? why does he agree?

This is exactly why you must focus only on the main storyline. A query that doesn't make logical sense obscures the story behind it and gets rejected. If you include subplots and minor characters, you'll have to start explaining everything, and there just isn't room for that on a single page. Queries that try it become too long or make no sense - often both.

There's more, of course. You don't just want to explain your story, you want to sell it. But if your query is focused, specific, and logical, it will go a long way towards selling itself already.


MattyDub said...

Some questions, based on the example you mentioned: "Frodo doesn't need to destroy the Ring; he needs to throw it into the bowels of Mt. Doom, located in the center of Sauron's wasteland domain."

The crucial things from the story are:
1) Frodo needs to destroy the Ring, as only that will break Sauron's power.
2) The only place he can do that is at Mt. Doom.*
I don't think you can leave out either of those details, but it gets tricky putting them together. How would you do it? Everything I think of seems forced. In fact, re-reading, you might also need:
1a) Sauron's power needs to be broken because if it isn't, he'll take over the world and Evil Will Triumph.
That is, you need to ground it somewhere - a query-letter reader can stop asking "Why?" when he gets to Evil Will Triumph.
Query letters are hard. I'm glad I'm not a writer.
* Technically, the only place the Ring can be destroyed is in Sammath Naur, in the heart of Orodruin. Perhaps some of the great dragons of old could have done so (one thinks that Glaurung could have possibly done it), but they're all gone now. Ahhhh...Geek Out!

Adam Heine said...

That's the basic idea, Matt. I suppose I should clarify, you start with the main storyline, but you will have to add things in order to be specific and make it flow logically. The trick is to add as little as possible.

Yes, this is hard. Most of us suck at it :-)